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SEASON AT THE IMPROV A bevy of unanticipated late changes creates huge question marks on eve of the opener

This was not the way the Buffalo Bills envisioned their preseason going.

They were planning on having continuity on their offensive coaching staff. They were planning on having a veteran left tackle to help shepherd the rookie next to him through the start of the NFL season.

Now they are improvising after firing coordinator Turk Schonert and releasing tackle Langston Walker.

Maybe it's a case of coach Dick Jauron boldly admitting mistakes and striking out in a new, improved direction.

But it's asking new coordinator Alex Van Pelt a lot to be great in his first year as an NFL play-caller. And it's asking Demetrius Bell a ton to start at left tackle when he never has played in an NFL game.

The turmoil of the past week puts a damper on prospects for the 2009 Bills. Here's a preview of the season with a focus on three big issues facing the team:

1. Are the Bills well built for the AFC East?

Or to put it another way: Are the Bills strong enough up the middle?

Good teams are tough up the middle. Good quarterback. Tough interior line. Stout interior defensive line. Good middle linebacker. Quality safety play. If your team is strong up the middle, then all the angles on the football field work in your favor.

After going 0-6 in division last year, the Bills' front office addressed this issue. Jettisoned were not-so-intense guard Derrick Dockery, and not-so-dominant centers Melvin Fowler and Duke Preston. The Bills believe they have a nastier front five with Geoff Hangartner at center and rookies Eric Wood and Andy Levitre at guard.

Hangartner needs to be good. Pats nose tackle Vince Wilfork has been kicking the Bills' butts for four years. Nose tackle Kris Jenkins swallowed Orchard Park when the Jets came to town last November. Miami has a physically tough front seven.

Wood, the 28th overall pick, looks like a stout stud.

Levitre, the 51st overall pick, had a reputation at Oregon State as having a hard-nosed, warrior mentality. ESPN's Mel Kiper rated him the No. 1 guard in the draft. He has strong hands. In preseason, however, he still was adjusting to the switch from tackle to guard. At times he sets up a tad too high, like a tackle. He should come along, but he's being thrown into the fire.

The most important spot on the line is a huge question mark. The Bills decided when they traded Jason Peters that Walker was a quality pass-blocking left tackle. Now they've changed their minds. Bell has an impressive body. But he's so green. He probably needs a full year of learning on the job before he can be counted on to excel.

At quarterback, expect Edwards to be more comfortable with Van Pelt as coordinator. There was some kind of disconnect between Edwards and Schonert the second half of last season. Edwards either wasn't taking or wasn't getting the direction he needed.

Edwards should be decisive and accurate. But will he have any time to look downfield?

2. Can the no-huddle offense succeed?

Jauron for the most part has employed a milk-the-clock, play-close-to-the-vest style on offense in his three seasons in Buffalo. He did not believe he had the weapons to shoot it out with most of his opponents.

Now, with his job on the line, it appears he has eschewed his conservative ways and gone into attack mode. Obviously, Jauron thinks he finally has the talent to let 'er rip.

The Bills were too easy to defend the past three years. Any team with a decent run defense could take the following approach: We're putting a safety over the top of Lee Evans on every play; we're containing Marshawn Lynch with our front seven; now where are you going with the ball?

The Bills have had no answer for three years running.

With Terrell Owens on the opposite side of Evans, the Bills think they've finally solved the puzzle. If a team wants to play two deep safeties and protect the outside of the field against Evans and Owens, the Bills should be able to run the ball and work the middle of the field with Josh Reed, the running backs and the tight ends.

Ideally, the no-huddle mode will make things a tad easier for Edwards and the Bills' young line. The defense might not be able to throw quite as many looks at the Buffalo offense. If the Bills can get a few first downs, tired pass rushers might make things easier for the pass protectors. Edwards is a smart quarterback who should be good at making quick reads and getting the Bills out of bad plays at the line of scrimmage.

Jauron wants the no-huddle to run at a fairly brisk pace.

"I'd just like it to be fast," Jauron said. "It doesn't have to have a lot of gears. . . . Obviously, you want to be able to have some change-ups in this thing, but I like it. The faster it is, almost for me, the better, within reason."

To run it efficiently at a real fast pace, the package of plays has to be restricted. Hence, the friction between Jauron and Schonert.

One potential downside of having a restricted package of plays is the defense has a better read on what's going to happen. It seems there's a fine line between being fast enough to make the no-huddle worth running and complex enough to make it hard to defend.

There are other downsides.

Is it smart to run the no-huddle exclusively in every game? (NOTE: We're not sure they're going to run it full time, even though Jauron has suggested as much.)

Two of the Bills' first three games are against offensive giants. New England's Tom Brady and Randy Moss rewrote NFL records two years ago. The Week Three foe, New Orleans' Drew Brees, passed for the second greatest yardage total in NFL history last year.

Do the Bills really think they have the offensive firepower -- even with Owens -- to get into a shootout with those two teams?

"There doesn't have to be a hurry," Jauron said. "We don't snap the ball every time with 20 seconds left on the play clock. Or 30 seconds. A lot of times we snap it with four or five. We try to vary it and change it up. I'm a believer that's not the issue."

Another worry: The Bills' defense does not look like a shut-down, dominant unit. It's fast. Ideally, it has playmakers. But it tends to be a bend-but-don't- break group. Can it withstand the pressure of losing the time of possession battle?

3. How much better can the defense get?

The Bills improved from 31st to 14th last season on defense. Keep in mind, the schedule wasn't brutal last year. The Bills played seven games against offenses that ranked 20th or worse in yards. On the other hand, the defense could have sued the offense for non-support.

It's reasonable to suggest the defense could improve if the offense moves the ball better (it was 25th in yards last year) and scores more (it was 25th in points). The Bills need to get their pass rushers on the field with a lead in the fourth quarter, for a change.

The defense has good depth on the line and in the secondary. The Bills should be able to win with a front four of Aaron Schobel, Marcus Stroud, Kyle Williams and Chris Kelsay. They all should stay fresh because of the backup corps: Aaron Maybin, Spencer Johnson, John McCargo, Ryan Denney and Chris Ellis.

Obviously the Bills need Maybin to create pressure opposite Schobel. It will be interesting to see how Maybin is used. Ideally, the talented McCargo blossoms under the tutelage of coach Bob Sanders. McCargo had a good preseason as a penetrator.

The Bills look good at cornerback. Terrence McGee had an excellent year in 2008. Leodis McKelvin brings an appealing swagger to the outside. He will get burned some, but he will make some plays. It would be good for the Bills if rookie Jairus Byrd can get on the field quickly in a situational role. He has good hands.

The Bills need high draft picks Donte Whitner and Paul Posluszny to make more plays.

If the Bills can get a lead and the fast pass rushers can stay fresh, more pressure should equal more turnovers. If the defenders are playing from behind and on the field too long, they could get pushed around.

Outlook: Logic suggests you don't start an offensive line with three men who never have played a down in the NFL and have any chance to make the playoffs. Logic says it's going to take a full year -- or two -- before the offensive line can dominate, and that's if the newcomers pan out. Logic says Edwards will take a pounding.

There is skill-position talent on this team. The defense should be pretty good. With a proven offensive line, no injuries and an improved Edwards, 9-7 would be within grasp. Not now. Forecast: 5-11.

e-mail: mgaughan@buffnews.com

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